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Spirit of Titans

Cal State Fullerton center fielder Hardman is enjoying baseball again because his father's leukemia is in remission

June 09, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times staff Writer

The jog in from center field is much nicer now that Clark Hardman can look up into the stands and steal a glimpse of his cheering father.

A year ago at this time, the Cal State Fullerton baseball star dreaded that jog because he'd see an empty seat.

Randy Hardman was diagnosed with leukemia June 1, 2006, one day before the Titans began play in the NCAA regional playoffs.

It was a devastating blow to Clark, and the season-long slump he'd been in as he tried to overcome 2005 surgeries on his shoulder and back suddenly wasn't his most pressing concern. He batted only .111 in the postseason even as the Titans advanced to the College World Series.

Today, after a bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy and months of other treatments, Randy's cancer is in remission. He has been back in the stands at most Fullerton home games, watching Clark's level of play return to where it was in 2004, when he was a freshman All-American.

And the Titans are again making a postseason run, playing host to UCLA beginning today in a best-of-three super regional. The winner goes to Omaha for the College World Series.

Hardman is batting a team-best .389 with four home runs and 44 runs batted in. He was an All-Big West Conference selection and last week was voted most valuable player in the San Diego Regional. Friday, the Chicago Cubs drafted him in the ninth round of the Major League draft.

"Last year, that was a tough year," Hardman said. "I mean, it had already been tough, but when we got the news about my dad I had a hard time concentrating on baseball."

Center field had been Hardman's escape. Even when he wasn't hitting, he could shine there on defense.

But last year, Hardman dreaded long innings in center. They separated him from teammates and left him alone with negative thoughts:

Is my arm going to regain its range of motion?

Is my back going to be strong again?

Is my batting average ever going to go back up?

And, most haunting, is my dad going to die?

Outwardly, "Clark took it the hardest," said Randy Hardman, who has two other children, one of whom, Kyle, was a redshirt freshman for Fullerton this season. "He came into the hospital and talked about how he didn't want to play baseball, but I told him to keep fighting."

Clark hit .341 in 2004, batting second for a team that won the national championship. He began 2005 with high hopes, but seven games into the season he suffered a torn labrum while sliding head first into third base.

He had been playing through the pain of a herniated disk in his back, but since he was going to be out because of the shoulder injury, he decided to have the back surgery as well. He sat out the rest of that season and was granted a medical redshirt.

Last season, he never got into a groove and batted .224 with only three multiple-hit games as a part-time starter.

"I don't think physically he was 100%," Coach George Horton said. "I think his range of motion was limited and he wasn't as strong as he was when he was a freshman athlete."

When the news about his father came, Clark realized that baseball wasn't everything.

"I was trying too hard to live up to my freshman year," he said. "I dug myself into a deeper hole and I was frustrated.

"But seeing somebody that strong -- I think every kid sees their father as invincible -- and seeing him have everything taken away, and have to start from scratch, it really put a lot of things in perspective."

Randy had been an avid supporter of the team and Clark had grown used to seeing his parents at the games. When they weren't there, it reminded him of what else was going on.

He wrote his father's name on his bat and inside his cap as a tribute, but that only made things worse.

"Instead of using the field as an escape, I came out and tried and

Teammate Danny Dorn gave Hardman a glimpse of hope.

In the first game after Randy was diagnosed, Dorn grabbed a bat on which Clark had written Randy's initials. When Dorn saw the initials on the bat, he told Clark he would hit a home run. In the first inning, Dorn singled. In the fourth inning, he delivered, blasting a two-run shot.

"When I crossed home plate I made eye contact with him and could see how happy he was," Dorn said.

Randy was released from the hospital just before Christmas, and he is back to work as a fire protection systems contractor.

"Life is returning to normal," he said. "I've been able to go to games and that has been good for both him and me."

His son's jog in from the outfield? It's now sweeter than ever.

"You never really know what you have until it's taken away," Clark said. "So to get my dad back after he was taken away, that's what has made this year a good year."

--

peter.yoon@latimes.com

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